NBA Finals 2019

A nation united to rouse the Raptors

Toronto will be looking to Kawhi Leonard to help them beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the NBA Finals this morning (Singapore time). The Raptors lead the two-time defending champions 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Toronto will be looking to Kawhi Leonard to help them beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the NBA Finals this morning (Singapore time). The Raptors lead the two-time defending champions 3-1 in the best-of-seven series.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Toronto's valiant Finals effort captures the imagination of ice hockey-mad Canada

TORONTO • Should the Toronto Raptors lift their first National Basketball Association (NBA) championship crown this morning (Singapore time), it would bring basketball's legacy full circle for Canada, celebrating its deep roots as the birthplace of the sport's inventor and site of the first league game.

The Raptors, who hold a 3-1 lead, will become the first non-American team to capture the throne if they beat two-time defending champions Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the NBA Finals at Toronto's Scotiabank Arena.

Their fans believe they will make history today, with Kevin Durant, the opposition's star forward, yet to play since the semi-finals and still listed as questionable.

The only NBA team in Canada have aroused fervour across a nation known more for its love of ice hockey, with outdoor watch parties at Maple Leaf Square - now christened "Jurassic Park" in honour of the Raptors' run to the Finals - inspiring copycat gatherings across the country.

"You would need to be probably asleep or something if you didn't realise that everybody is pretty excited," Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. "It's the first time. Any team that go through this the first time have an abundance of energy about their team."

Canada's basketball heritage goes back to the beginning with James Naismith, the sport's founder, who was born to Scottish immigrant parents south-west of Ottawa in 1861.

He developed basketball as a winter indoor activity while he was a physical education teacher at a Christian boys' school in Springfield, Massachusetts, which is the home of the Basketball Hall of Fame today.

NATIONAL FERVOUR

You would need to be probably asleep or something if you didn't realise that everybody is pretty excited. It's the first time. Any team that go through this the first time have an abundance of energy about their team.

NICK NURSE, Toronto Raptors coach, on the passion in Canada ignited by their NBA Finals run.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver believes the Raptors' run represents a "homecoming of sorts for basketball in Canada".

He added: "We owe Naismith a lot in terms of his vision for global popularity... Here we are today with very much a global sport, one of the most popular sports in the world."

The league's first game took place in Toronto in 1946 but the Finals are only being played outside the United States for the first time this year, while the 13 Canadians on various NBA teams are also the largest group from any nation beyond American borders.

An NBA title will also give bragging rights to Canadians, whose professional sports teams have long played second fiddle to their American counterparts.

No Canadian side have won the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens, while the Toronto Blue Jays have not won Major League Baseball's World Series since back-to-back titles in 1992-1993.

So it is no wonder that while Formula One's Canadian Grand Prix and the PGA Tour's Canadian Open - a tune-up event for this week's US Open, golf's third Major of the year - took place over the weekend, the focus is squarely on the Raptors, who have drawn record TV viewership across the country.

According to figures released by broadcasters TSN, CTV2 and RDS, Game 2 of the Finals was the most-watched NBA game ever, averaging 4.3 million viewers across the three channels, while almost 40 per cent of the population have caught all or part of the series.

Hailing the rabid support for giving the Raptors impetus against the Warriors, reserve guard Fred VanVleet, who has been declared fit to play after his head injury, said: "We've got a really good fan base. It's definitely unique in the NBA, and our situation is unique where the fans are so thirsty for success and so hungry.

"I just love the support. Us players definitely appreciate it. Our fans bring it every night. You have people from different countries all together just cheering for one team. Having that support is amazing."

Though nothing will overtake the rooted culture of ice hockey, the Raptors are primed to become "Canada's team" - as a representation of a diverse, global society.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2019, with the headline 'A nation united to rouse the Raptors'. Print Edition | Subscribe